Incriminating English

Randolph Quirk

  • Language, Self and Society: A Social History of Language edited by Peter Burke and Roy Porter
    Polity, 358 pp, £45.00, December 1991, ISBN 0 7456 0765 9
  • Images of English: A Cultural History of the Language by Richard Bailey
    Cambridge, 329 pp, £16.95, March 1992, ISBN 0 521 41572 1
  • The Oxford Companion to the English Language edited by Tom McArthur and Feri McArthur
    Oxford, 1184 pp, £25.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 19 214183 X
  • The History of the English Language: A Source Book by David Burnley
    Longman, 373 pp, £25.00, January 1992, ISBN 0 582 02522 2
  • The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. I: Beginnings to 1066 edited by Richard Hogg and Norman Blake
    Cambridge, 609 pp, £60.00, August 1992, ISBN 0 521 26474 X

Among various worries I have about the degree subject English, the most serious is the decline (to near vanishing point in many universities) of historical language study. One accepts, of course, that there is an awful lot else to claim the attention of teachers and taught; that the literature of the past two hundred years alone is more than enough challenge for the three short years of undergraduate life. One accepts, too, that things were not helped by a tradition in teaching the history of the language that was more than a little offputting, even for those who would spurn any passing passions for ‘relevance’. Preoccupation with Germanic comparative philology some times failed even to get the starred forms of proto-English across the North Sea before the course ended. Even the faster and less doggedly traditional teachers were liable to get bogged down in the phonology of Middle English dialects and the mysteries of ‘ash one’ and ‘ash two’.

Yet the history of a language is an indispensable guide to the cultural history of its speakers. And with English we are lucky in having an exceptionally rich and lengthy record through which we can make this cultural history accessible in the total web of European civilisation. My concern over the decline in teaching the subject is increased by awareness that once a tradition of study dies, resuscitation is extremely difficult. As Chaucer puts it,

  yf that olde bokes were aweye
Yloren were of remembraunce the keye,

and already the learning assembled in Luick (to name just one ‘old book’) is beyond the reach of most who study English.

So it was with some reassurance that I noted in recent months the publication of several new books which deal in depth with English linguistic history. For example, the collection of papers edited by Peter Burke and Roy Porter, Language, Self and Society. This, you’d think (I thought), is just what is needed to excite a fresh interest in the history of English. Well, I thought wrong. The volume is too miscellaneous in topic and treatment to fulfil the claims of its subtitle, and the more valuable essays are devalued in an ambience of sloppily expressed ideology. Among the ill-motivated leitmotifs is a whinge about professional historians for their neglect both of language and of the racially, religiously and sexually oppressed: the neglect, perhaps, of what Hugh Ormsby-Lennon refers to in the book as ‘a social solidarity semantic’.

The broad concentration upon a generally-neglected period of language history (the 17th and 18th centuries) is wholly welcome, as is the attention paid to lexicology and semantics. But even at their best, the authors sadly make us doubt their scholarly credentials. Jo Gladstone’s interesting study of John Ray quotes a passage that she attributes to Bishop Wilkins when it is, in fact, from Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, and elsewhere she says that Thomas Blount ‘first used the title term “hard words’ ” when, in fact, it appears in the title of the really rather famous book by Cawdrey published 14 years before Blount was born. Patrick Joyce conceals some valuable material on dialect behind a smokescreen of class prejudice and rather poor writing; a not untypical example: ‘around the mid-19th century when dialect emerged’. Daniel Rosenberg on Home Tooke makes interesting connections back to Locke and forward to de Man but neglects Bentham. Roy Porter on the language of sickness in Georgian England could usefully have been longer and G.S. Rousseau on late 18th-century nerves could just as usefully have been a lot shorter. Nigel Smith is fascinating on ‘The uses of Hebrew in the English Revolution’ and Peter Burke’s little sketch of post-Medieval uses of Latin is wide-ranging and excellent. Other chapters suffer from being wide-ranging and bad. Victor Kiernan’s ‘Languages and Conquerors’ should have stuck to the subcontinent which he knows well instead of skipping round the world and across three millennia.

It may be this diachronic range that makes Arabia ‘half empty’ on page 194 but endure ‘overcrowding’ by page 200. And as if to widen still further the range of conquest and imperialism, Kiernan takes women on board as having ‘a good claim to be classed as colonisées’. The model for such free and easy historiography was already established in Roy Porter’s Introduction to the book: not so much a broad brush as an aerosol spray cartoon of the intellectual scenery around us. But the ‘Social History of Language’ is too serious to be travestied with questions like ‘Will computers ever develop chatty vernaculars of their own?’ or with hackneyed and misleading metaphors like ‘the language of clothes’.

So I turn to Richard Bailey’s Images of English: exhilarating material drawn from the less gleaned acres of language history. On the controversies over post-Renaissance style, we have not only Gil, Bullokar and Puttenham but Camden, Carew and Verstegan. On the 19th-century problems of ‘English Transplanted’ around the world, we have not only Noah Webster, Jakob Grimm and Macaulay’s over-quoted Minute but Alphonse de Candolle, P.M. Cunningham, W.E. Gladstone and Ma hatma Gandhi.

But although much of the material is fresh and refreshing, the thinking behind its selection is stuck in an all too familiar groove: English is characterised as permeated with class prejudice, racialist contempt, chauvinist venom and imperialist swagger. Without actually identifying himself with such recent extremism, Bailey gives remarkable prominence to an ‘image of English as a male-dominated and consequently a flawed mode of expression’. At the very least, it should have been stressed that such views tend to proceed only from people knowing no other language. Justifiably irritated by the triumphalism in much writing on English ‘as a world language’, and desperate to demonstrate his politically correct credentials, Bailey insists on predominantly negative images which sadly lead him into sociolinguistic commonplaces of the late 20th century. He thus distorts some of what would be of undoubted educational and scholarly value in his researches into four vitally important centuries.

In fact, Bailey and Burke-Porter alike offer thirsty readers a heady mixture that could be disastrous on an empty stomach. Both books should be broached only by those well fed on sound historical data served up as hygienically as the easily polluted subject of language will allow. One place to seek such fare is the admirable Oxford Companion to the English Language, which, though far from mainly concerned with the history of English, provides an excellent summary accompanied by references to something like a hundred and fifty special articles elsewhere in the book, dealing with such topics as etymology, semantic change and loan translation, all of them written by experts. We can be grateful to the McArthurs for thus placing key aspects of language history firmly and clearly in the wider context of English linguistic and literary culture.

A still more obvious place to look for solid fare is the source book assembled by David Burnley in The History of the English Language. This is, in effect, an anthology of English written between the ninth century and the early 20th. The passages are well chosen both as representative samples of their time and as having inherent interest, concerned as many are with explicit reference to matters of language and style. Near the end, we have one of D.H. Lawrence’s typical dialect characters (‘I’m none as ormin’ as I look, seest ta’) with one of Lawrence’s typical comments: ‘She fairly hated the sound of correct English’. A hundred year earlier and we have a sample of Thomas Carlyle commenting on the influence of the machine on imagery and metaphor. Burnley follows each passage with a discussion of its linguistic features, and he also prefaces each passage and each chronological group of passages with more general remarks on contemporary linguistic developments.

Such explication becomes more technical and difficult the further one goes towards the front of the book, and the six pages devoted to a chunk of the Ormulum (never, I admit, among the top ten of my favourite books) is tough going indeed. ‘Note, too,’ says Burnley, blithely, ‘the special form’ of one particular word, referring to an unspecified place in a densely inscrutable page of facsimile manuscript. Nor is he one to ignore ‘ash one’ and ‘ash two’, though leaving readers to find out for themselves what they mean. In short, anyone with the common enough habit of starting books from the beginning is liable to be stumped early on by the economical exposition of obscure technicalities, perhaps in consequence never getting to the end of the story that Burnley so bravely seeks to tell.

For of course the only way to tell so complex a story is to tell it at some length. That is what numerous British scholars – some of them long deceased – have been planning to do for many years, and their dream is now being realised in the Cambridge History of the English language, the mantle of general editor having passed to Richard Hogg. Eventually to comprise six large volumes this will be far and away the biggest and most ambitious history of the language ever published, and to judge from the quality of the two volumes that have appeared, it will be an achievement of which all concerned can be thoroughly proud.

Because no individual scholar could write so much (let alone know so much), Professor Hogg has wisely parcelled out the work, via an editorial team, among more than forty of his peers, worldwide, each contributing at least one hefty chapter and several doing more than one. This strategy ensures that each topic can be addressed by someone with a world-class reputation for research knowledge of the field concerned. It should also ensure (but these are early days) that the work can be completed and published within a reasonably short time.

Volumes One to Four are to be strictly parallel, with each devoted to a period (before 1066; 1066-1476; 1476-1776; since 1776), and each having a conveniently similar internal structure. So readers can either absorb the whole story for each period in turn, or follow the development of, say, syntax by studying in isolation the relevant chapter in each volume.

But Volumes Five and Six will differ from this pattern and from each other. Volume Six will be devoted to English in the United States and Canada, and the plan seems to envisage a far greater number of chapters. Volume Five will be oddly miscellaneous, each chapter narrowly regional: ‘English in Ireland’, ‘The Dialects of England since 1776’, ‘English in Australia’, etc. The announced title of the volume reflects this eccentricity of content: English in Britain and Overseas. Origins and Development. ‘English in Britain’ was something of a shock and made me realise that the first four volumes are to cover only English in England.

It might have been better to ... But I have no intention of carping, since it is all too obvious what a daunting feat of organisation Richard Hogg has had to confront. Given the large amount of shared linguistic history despite regional and political separation, alternative modes of presentation must have been mooted between him and his international team – may still, indeed, be occupying editorial attention. Meanwhile, one can only say that the imbalance is breathtaking: four volumes on England, one volume on North America, one chapter on Australia. Not to mention one chapter on Scotland, whose relevant linguistic history is not all that shorter than England’s. Where was the Ruthwell Cross when ‘The Dream of the Rood’ was carved on it?

As well as masterminding the whole project, Professor Hogg has edited the first volume, The Beginnings to 1066, and is the author of two chapters in it: a general introduction, usefully outlining the political, ecclesiastical and literary history of the Anglo-Saxon period; and a 100-page chapter on phonology and morphology. Pre-OE coverage of language history is provided by Alfred Bammesberger of Eichstätt University; there is a chapter on syntax by Elizabeth Closs Traugott (Stanford), one on semantics and vocabulary by Dieter Kastovsky (Vienna), on dialects by Thomas Toon (Ann Arbor), on onomastics by Cecily Clark (Cambridge), and on literary language by Malcolm Godden (Oxford).

Volume Two, 1066-1476, is edited by Norman Blake (Sheffield), who in addition to an excellent general introduction contributes the chapter on literary language. Onomastics is again handled by Cecily Clark, but the chapter on phonology and morphology is by Roger Lass (Cape Town), that on Middle English dialectology is by James Milroy (Sheffield), on syntax by Olga Fischer (Amsterdam), and the chapter entitled ‘Lexis and Semantics’ by David Burnley (Sheffield).

Each volume is well indexed and each has its own quite lengthy ‘Glossary of Linguistic Terms’. The fairly low degree of overlap draws attention not so much to the difference in linguistic phenomena between the two periods as to the differences in metalanguage between any two linguists, let alone – as here – between 12 linguists. Even where the same term Occurs in both glossaries (bahuvrihi, for example), the explanations are liable to be phrased somewhat differently, though not of course contradictorily so. Each volume also has its own admirably full bibliographical references, but surely two separately alphabetised bibliographies per volume is a luxurious inconvenience. Having one for primary and another for secondary sources may be editorially appealing, but bow is the reader to know that the reference ‘Ekwall (1951)’ it is in the first list while ‘Ekwall (1947)’ is in the second? In this case, as it happens, it is not easy to see how the editor decided either.

It may not be too late for Richard Hogg to have second thoughts on such matters in preparing subsequent volumes, and in this spirit let me make another minor point. Lengthy and often highly technical chapters deserve a better system of subdivision than the widely unloved ‘decimal’ mode. At the best of times, it is not all that easy to cope with the instruction ‘cf 5.4.2.2.1’, but when sections so denominated have the numbers printed in a small, faint and near invisible fount, the result is maddening. For future volumes, typographical advice might also be sought with a view to selecting type sizes and founts that will be hierarchically iconic for the shoulder and side-heads used in labelling the chapter subdivisions.

In a General Editor’s Preface which appears in both Volumes One and Two, Professor Hogg sets out the broad aims of the entire History. A ‘crucial principle’ is ‘that synchrony and diachrony are intertwined,’ and he suggests that the diachrony produces different trends at different times: ‘As a rough generalisation one can say that up to about the 17th century the development of English tended to be centrifugal, whereas since then the development has tended to be centripetal.’ Well, a good case can certainly be made for claiming that advances such as printing, industrialisation, faster communications and modern institutions have tended to induce uniformity, decelerating if not reversing more traditional trends towards diversification. Indeed, I have from time to time made such a case myself. But the paragraph goes on to make it clear that Hogg believes the opposite of this, in which case his use of ‘centrifugal’ and ‘centripetal’ must be idiosyncratic.

The History ‘is not prescriptive’ (unsurprisingly, one, might say), but it ‘aims to be authoritative’, and it is to this end that we have multiple authorship, each writer ‘chosen purely on the grounds of expertise and knowledge’. Professor Hogg has wisely given his contributors their head, though apprehensive of buying individual authority at the possible cost of collective incompatibility. The procedure ‘has, of course, led to problems, notably with contrasting views of the same topic (and also because of the need to distinguish the ephemeral flight of theoretical fancy from genuine new insights into linguistic theory), but even in a work which is concerned to provide a unified approach ... such contrasts, and even contradictions, are stimulating and fruitful.’ In fact, both his policy and his confidence in it seem admirably justified in these first two volumes. Read sequentially, each volume is on the whole smoothly coherent; read topically, there is little feeling of dislocation in style or approach as one moves from, say, Ms Traugott on OE syntax to Ms Fischer on ME syntax.

In many ways, the most difficult task is that addressed by Professor Bammesberger, ‘The Place of English in Germanic and Indo-European’, since he treads ground that he knows will be least familiar to virtually every reader. He valuably relates Sanskrit, Greek and Germanic philology to the tradition of 19th-century German scholarship now all too little known in most Anglophone universities. The account of phonology is dense to the point of being well nigh impenetrable in places, and even in the morphology section he might have made more frequent reader-friendly connections with later developments in English: for example, on the instrumental case and the dual number (he implies, indeed, that the latter is absent even from OE, 1.57, though other contributors to the History describe its currency into the ME period). Virtually no attempt is made to speculate on pre-OE syntax or lexicology, though space is found to say that guma was obsolete in OE (I.64), when this noun had in fact a continuous history in English and Scots into the 16th century.

Bammesberger is dealing with a ghostly period when the language left practically no direct record of itself. For OE and ME description can be based on actual written records, beginning as a thin stream but increasing to a torrent. Such records are, however, a dark glass through which to discern the living language. Inferring phonology from Medieval manuscript is notoriously hazardous, but Hogg (for OE) and Roger Lass (for ME) do a superb job both in explicating the methodology and then in setting out the reconstructions of the changing sound system from Alfredian times to Chaucer and beyond. This involves Hogg in describing the evolution of Anglo-Saxon writing, including the runic alphabet, and the controversies over such issues as ‘short diphthongs’. It involves Lass (whose theoretical orientation is different but far from distractingly so) in coping with the switch of politico-linguistic base from Wessex to London, and – taking a clear exposition of ‘ash one’ and ‘ash two’ in his stride – moving to a fascinating ‘conspiracy theory’ for the evolution of ME prosody.

It falls to Hogg and Lass to provide also the account of how a quite heavily inflected OE evolved into a quite lightly inflected language In the 15th century, a typological change that Hogg admirably anticipates with his exposition of what are from a Modern English standpoint the less familiar aspects of OE, such as grammatical gender. In taking up the story in Volume Two, Lass is equally successful in dealing with such features as number, the determiner system, and the emergence of they and other new pronouns. The puzzles over the origin of she (OE heo) are explored, though the ‘Shetland theory’ is perhaps too summarily dismissed as ‘only attested in a few (non-English) place names’. This ignores the fact that, beside the numerous Shiptons whose first element corresponds to sheep, there are two in Yorkshire where the first element was heope (‘hip’) in OE but with sh-spellings from the early ME period.

If a general phonology is not easy to establish on the basis of written records, the finer points of dialectal variation are even less accessible. This is especially so for Anglo-Saxon times, when the majority of surviving texts are written in a form of ‘West Saxon’ that seems more or less deliberately to be regionally neutral. Thomas Toon in Volume One thus has a tougher job than James Milroy, who takes up the subject for the post-Conquest period when the situation is radically different. Not merely are there far more documentary records, but there is much less concept of an institutional norm. Variation – scribal, regional, temporal – is rampant, and Milroy is able to relate modern theories of dialectology to a rich array of material. Above all, he can draw on the researches of Angus McIntosh and his colleagues, whose monumental Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English appeared in 1986.

Establishing and tracing the history of syntax is also made difficult by the nature of the surviving record. For much of OE prose, we must wonder about the extent of Latin influence, while the syntax of the verse is just as likely to be affected by the constraints of the metrical form and other aspects of traditional poetic rhetoric. Middle English is even more complex to unravel, with a new poetic form (largely the rhymed octosyllabics) co-existing with a long-lined alliterative mode, while the prose sometimes has a Latin base but often an at least as influential French background. To divine, behind all this, the ‘real’ English syntax as it tripped off the tongue is next to impossible especially since it is not until late in the period that writers such as Chaucer made even a pretence of simulating anything that we might call colloquial language.

Nonetheless, both Professor Traugott and Professor Fischer achieve a remarkably full, interesting and convincing account of the syntax in their respective periods, blending straightforward exposition with theoretical (in general, mildly generative) commentary and modern Comparison. Both scholars are generous in their annotation and referencing, so that on virtually every topic readers are enabled to go off on their own to delve further. As with Hogg on morphology, Elizabeth Traugott has the task of establishing a synchronic base-line (the syntax of OE) before she can tackle developmental issues like the periphrastic verb system, the increasing use of ‘empty’ subjects, and the changes in word order. Olga Fischer, whose ME syntax is exemplarily well tied in to the corresponding chapter in the preceding volume, naturally makes good use of her own published research on non-finite clauses, developments in which are so notable a feature of ME syntax. She also makes excellent and illuminating use of her Dutch – as, for instance, in expounding the multiplying functions of do. Her account of cases in relation to both prepositional developments and predicate ‘arguments’ is first-rate, as is her history of the historic present. On indefiniteness in the noun phrase she is less successful (ignoring, for example, the history of some as a ‘non-specific indefinite’), nor do I find her always convincing on word order.

One of the most striking and praiseworthy features of the Cambridge History is the properly prominent place accorded to lexicology. At last. Traditionally, almost the only aspect of vocabulary treated in histories of the language has been the influx of foreign words – compelling enough in itself, but only one part of the lexical picture. In his splendid ‘Semantics and Vocabulary’, Dieter Kastovsky sets out in Volume One to present a wholly better-structured and more fully rounded treatment, and he achieves a standard of scholarship, both descriptive and theoretical, that will be a stimulus and a challenge to those writing the corresponding chapter for later periods. A theoretical discussion of the word as a linguistic unit is followed by a thorough account of vocabulary development (through foreign influence, word-formation and semantic change) in relation to phonology and such issues as ‘diaphasic variation’ (which leads him into an excellent disquisition on kennings) and the structural concept of ‘lexical fields’.

In writing the lexical chapter for Volume Two, David Burnley seems to have been unable to avail himself of Kastovsky’s exposition as a model. At any rate, for whatever reason, his treatment of ME is quite sharply different, as is his theoretical frame of reference, which is rather more insular. Though well enough informed in semantics and other aspects of theory (if not to the extent of abjuring the repeated tautology, ‘semantic meaning’), Burnley writes less as a linguist than as a social and literary historian.

As he considered how to share out the work for this Volume Two, Norman Blake must indeed have hesitated over whether he or Burnley should tackle the chapter entitled ‘The Literary Language’. If anyone. For while most of us will welcome the planned inclusion of lexicology as a topic for separate treatment, volume by volume, the decision to do likewise for ‘literary language’ will be more controversial. However the category is interpreted (and interpretation is bound to vary, as it already does between Malcolm Godden in Volume One and Blake who took it on for Volume Two), the language data involved could hardly fail to be addressed in other chapters: notably those on syntax and vocabulary. So it turns out, in fact. In Volume One, Kastovsky has more to say on poetic diction than Godden: in Volume Two, Burnley has more to say than Blake on the ‘literary exploitation’ of language by Chaucer.

Nonetheless, given the likelihood that most students tackling OE and ME will have a predominantly literary interest, it is not unreasonable to have for each period a chapter that at tempts to draw together linguistic observations which may be deemed of special concern to such readers. Godden makes the subject pleasantly accessible and is at his best in the 20-page section on OE poetry, where the relations of alliteration, metre and such stylistic devices as variation and formulaic expression are well handled. In a comparable section on prose, he shows how ‘the development of a standard language’ played a vital role in the tenth-century flowering of literary prose. He is perhaps less successful in handling the argument that Aelfric regarded his Latin Grammar as ‘the key which unlocks the meaning’ of his own OE Homilies, thus making ‘it clear that literary prose was quite distinct from the ordinary spoken language,’ a fact itself so commonplace that one wonders why Aelfric or indeed Godden should find it worth stating.

Yet in the corresponding chapter of Volume Two Norman Blake is also exercised by the distinction between ‘ordinary spoken language’ and whatever should be regarded as ‘literary’ language. And he is anxious to stress that ‘there is no way to find out what colloquial language was like in our period.’ This is true, of course, though the importance of the issue for a discussion of literary language is not so obvious, and in any event Blake seems to ignore much material whose authors arguably seek to represent ordinary speech. Passus Five of Piers Plowman comes to mind. Yet this major and lengthy poem is scarcely mentioned – and Medieval drama not at all.

But there is a good deal of value in Blake’s essay. He writes interestingly on the Brut and on the prose of the ‘Catharine Group’; so, too, on the work of Richard Rolle and on the evidence we have for widely dispersed centres of intense literary activity. London clearly had little to do with the remarkable Alliterative Revival whose crowning glory is Sir Gawain; not much, either, to do with Henryson et al – but Scotland, as we have seen, is off-limits.

If there is room for debate over the category ‘literary language’, there is on the face of it still more room to question the decision to include a chapter on onomastics in these period volumes. Surely, some will say, the naming of people and places has no place in linguistic history? These matters belong to historical geography, to demographic and economic history, to local history, to sociology. Well, doubtless they do, but the decision to include them here deserves the warmest approval. Naming is a linguistic activity in which nearly everyone at some time participates; it is usually taken very seriously, often indeed sacredly; it is a linguistic activity that varies temporally, regionally, sexually, culturally and socially. ‘When I meet a professional boxer,’ said someone recently, ‘I’m pretty sure he won’t be called Sebastian or Crispin,’

In the two first volumes, the chapter ‘Onomastics’ is in each case written by Cecily Clark whose untimely death in March this year robs us of a most distinguished Medievalist whose knowledge of English toponymics and anthroponymics was unsurpassed. In these two superb chapters, she sets out the range of source material from Bede through Domesday Book to Lay Subsidy Rolls, manorial, monastic and county assize records; she expounds the methodology and explains the difficulties of establishing the vernacular name that lies behind language of record which was rarely English; and she parades before us the names that were given to persons and places over a period of more than seven hundred years.

The division of these two volumes of the Cambridge History at 1066 is an assertion that political history and linguistic history are interlocked. But the linguistic differences between OE and ME are not, in fact, generally easy to link with the time of the Conquest. By contrast, in personal name-giving the link is clear. As early as 1080, the shift from traditional English names like Edwin and Sigeflaed to names of Continental association like John and Emma was strongly in evidence. Within a generation of the Conquest, records show that even in Winchester, the former capital, more than 70 per cent of men bore names unknown in Anglo-Saxon times. Among the examples given by Ms Clark, Herbertus filius Edwini is emblematic.